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Monster Train is the first game developed by San Francisco-based developer Shiny Shoe Games, and what a way to enter the market! Monster Train was first released on Steam through their early access program, and it was almost instantly received with great admiration. I have logged almost 200 hours on Steam and have since been playing exclusively on Xbox Series X since the game’s release on Game Pass. There are not any meaningful differences between the Steam and Xbox versions, so I will not be differentiating in this review.
Monster Train is a hybrid deck-builder, rogue-lite, and pseudo-tower defense game. The main goal in Monster Train is to carry a pyre shard on your train into Hell to re-ignite the hellfire before Hell freezes over. You can choose from one of 5 factions as your main faction and then a second faction as your back-up. Also, each faction has 2 unique heroes that you can pick from, leading to 320 unique combinations of factions and heroes. In addition to this, each of the 10 heroes has 3 skill trees that can be combined in different ways as you progress through the game. Once you add in the 90+ artifacts and 215 cards that you can build your deck with, it is clear where that perfect 10 for the replayability score comes from.
Monster Train starts off like most rogue-lites: you have an easy tutorial run, and then you are tossed into the fire where you will die, and die frequently. Thankfully, with every death your factions will get stronger, and you will unlock new cards and artifacts. This core gameplay loop is certainly something that rogue-lite fans will expect and understand. One area where rogue-lites tend to suffer a bit is with scaling as you gain power. The typical progression for the game is that they start difficult and get easier as you unlock new items. The result is that you typically become more over-powered due to top-tier items being usable. Monster Train address this issue through its covenant system. There are 25 levels that have increasing difficulty modifiers like increased enemy hit points, debuffs to your troops, and other nasty effects to make your life difficult. This difficulty ramp is reminiscent of Slay the Spire’s Ascension mechanic.
A Monster Train run starts off with a basic starter deck with some generic troops and spells based on which faction and hero you chose to start with. The faction-specific cards can be anything from damage or healing spells, additional troops, spells to buff troops, or even spells to bring them back from the dead. In the beginning, you will choose your hero’s starting bonuses and pick a relic. This choice can greatly shape the build of your deck. You will not get far with just your starter deck, however, as the spells and troops are very weak. Fear not, though, as getting new cards and relics is easy and starts right after the first battle. Typically, you will get two choices of cards: one from your main clan and one from the supporting clan. After battles, the cards will typically be spells, but occasionally troops will be an option. Each non-boss level will also have an optional challenge that can net a reward of gold, cards, or a relic. These challenges can range from enemies starting on each floor to enemies having a buff like additional armor or multi-strike (attacking multiple times per round).
Monster Train’s gameplay loop is truly unique when compared to other similar deck-building games. Your train is divided up into four sections: three floors and the top where the pyre shard is housed. The goal of the game is to protect the pyre from enemy attacks. Enemies will typically enter the train on the bottom floor and move their way up each turn. There are special conditions where enemies will either spawn on all floors or, if an enemy has haste, they will skip the middle floor and go directly to the third. Prior to the enemy attack, you can place troops or cast spells to create your train’s defenses. You start with 3 energy per turn, and every card has a cost that can range from 0-4. There are a few cards that have higher costs than that, but there are ways to generate energy through relics or cards. Once you finish your turn, the enemies will attack your front troop on each floor, and any surviving allies will attack the enemies back. It is possible to buff your troops to attack first, as well, so you can change the outcome of individual fights through buffs and upgrades. The game thankfully has an option to see what will happen via a battle preview, allowing you to easily see if a troop or enemy is going to die so you can focus your energy on other targets. At the end of each fight you will be given the chance to add at least two cards to your deck, and possibly a third if you opted to undergo the challenge.
The main draw for any rogue-lite is a combination of the uniqueness of the runs and the permanent unlocks that give you that sense of growth as you do game after game. Monster Train does a great job of mixing up the runs and making each feel unique. As previously mentioned, there are two champions, and each one has 3 different skillsets that grow and can be mixed over the course of the run. In addition, the champion that you select in the beginning of the game will determine your starting deck composition. After each battle you have the choice between two tracks, which offer differing events to upgrade or otherwise change your deck. There are stores to upgrade spells and monsters, buy relics, or purge cards; places to heal; banners to add troops; icy cavern events which could be positive or negative; and a few other events that can change the course of your game. Whenever a run ends, either by victory or defeat, you will gain faction experience for both the main faction and the supporting one. Every time a faction levels up, new cards and relics will be unlocked for use in future runs. The different factions are incredibly well-balanced as well; there is no superior combination that makes the game overly easy, and each one has its own unique playstyle.
The final aspect of a rogue-lite is that it must be enjoyable to die and replay the game multiple times. Many rogue-lite games fail here due to balance issues. Either you end up too powerful and the game is too easy, or the tangible reward for death is not enough to keep trying. I feel like Monster Train handles this aspect wonderfully as you are not only rewarded from each playthrough, but the unlocks are very beneficial. Every faction unlocks their second hero at level five, and those levels will come quickly, so there is never a feeling that you are stuck in a loop and cannot make progress. As previously mentioned, Monster Train has a covenant system to increase or tailor the difficulty level to wherever you see fit, and with 25 different covenant levels, you can make the game as difficult as you like.
As of writing this review, less than 10% of players have beaten a covenant rank 25 run on Steam, and even fewer have completed this on Xbox. While the covenant system adds a great level of depth, the rank 25 runs often need an almost perfect deck to win. This can be frustrating, requiring restarts until you get the items or cards that are needed. The other qualm I have with Monster Train is that the core game does usually start to feel too easy, even on higher covenant ranks, but the final boss stage can be incredibly tough or impossible depending on how your deck is built. This is not as bad as a game like Slay the Spire, though, where the final boss is hidden until you start the final stage. Monster train does tell you which version of the final boss you will be fighting, so it is possible to tailor your deck correctly to beat it. However, rogue-lite randomness can jump in and prevent you from building a solid counter deck. If all these covenant ranks, factions, heroes, and random levels weren’t enough to keep the replayability high, there are a couple other ways to keep the game fresh. Monster Train has a mode called Hell Rush, which is a time-attack multiplayer mode that supports up to 8 players. Everybody is playing the same map with the same choices, so it is up to your quick decision-making to come out on top.
Finally, Monster Train added mods for runs in one of the early game updates. These modifiers can make the game ridiculously hard or make it fun and easy. You will not earn any faction experience for modified runs, but they are a fun way to try out different ways to play. Monster Train also has a daily run with three modifiers and pre-selected factions, and you can compete with other players to see how your score matches up.
Overall, Monster Train is a great experience and is extremely well-polished and balanced. The developer has provided updates and content patches throughout the early-access period, and they continue to do so since official launch. The time investment figure of 20-hours is what I feel is the minimum amount of time to see “everything” but this is the type of game you can easily sink hundreds of hours into. I’m currently at about 150 hours on Steam and about 50 on the Xbox. As of writing this review, the first major DLC expansion has been released, and I will be doing a short addendum review of the new content shortly. If you enjoy deck-building games, rogue-lites, games that can be played in short (30-45 minute) bursts, or just are looking for something truly unique, definitely give Monster Train a look.